Professional underwater photographer Gill McDonald reviews Alex Mustard’s definitive handbook for aspiring underwater photographers, Underwater Photography Masterclass:
Alex Mustard is the master of his art, and his book on underwater photography is a triumph. A natural teacher, Alex explains every skill the underwater photographer could possibly need in a simple way with faultless examples. An absolute must for everyone using a camera underwater.
Dr Alexander Mustard has been taking photographs underwater for 30 years, and fulltime professionally for the last 10. His images have won international recognition, including being category winners in both the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the British Wildlife Photography Awards. In 2013, Alex was named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the only time an underwater photograph has claimed this prestigious award. He founded the new Underwater Photographer of the Year competition in 2015 and was also judge for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the CMAS World Championship of Underwater Photography.
Alex has been published in all the world’s top scuba-diving magazines with hundreds of articles and thousands of photos to his credit. He has coauthored other marine related books, and has also had, and continues to perform, many other roles in the fascinating world of underwater photography. Not least of these is running his extremely popular workshops in locations all round the world.
Given all this and more, it is unsurprising that Alex has now turned his attention to producing his first, long-awaited book specifically on underwater photography: Underwater Photography Masterclass. It is difficult to imagine anything new and different being published on this niche subject, since there are already a surprising number of books available on the market. However, Alex has unquestionably succeeded in creating a go-to book that is as refreshing as it is informative.
One of Alex’s great strengths, both in his excellent workshops and now in this easy-to-navigate book, is pinpointing and resolving the exact challenges that all underwater photographers face. The book is very clearly laid out and straightforward to reference. Each of the nine chapters tackles a specific discipline, such as “Mastering Ambient Light” or “Macro Lighting and Technique” and within each chapter are two well-laid-out pages per sub-area, such as silhouettes or close-focus wide-angle, clearly titled and easy to follow.
The 192-page, soft cover book has 280 full-colour images and is packed with information, yet it still manages to fulfil its mission of being concise and portable. Though Alex himself says the book is “not technical, there are no equations and only a couple of diagrams”, it is detailed and manages to condense a vast array of tips and techniques which Alex has taught in his workshops over the years.
It is aimed at all underwater photographers regardless of camera system, from compact to DSLR, and I have no doubt that every single person who reads this book will improve and learn, no matter what level they currently shoot at.
A large component of the content is given over to lighting. Alex firmly believes that understanding, controlling and exploiting light allows the photographer total control over their images. This subject is spread throughout the book and relevant to each section as the chapters progress. It covers not only correct exposure but also learning how to manage the quality of light, how to position strobes for a host of different “normal” scenarios, and also specific lighting techniques like texture, the famous “single strobe challenge”, which Alex introduces on his workshops, and understanding the effect of distance to subject yet without any confusing guide numbers or technical information.
Each chapter is a workshop in itself, and I strongly recommend focusing on a chapter at a time and conquering the techniques therein. In that sense, the layout is different to other reference books. It is much more a tutorial, hence the titular “Masterclass”, than a reference book, to be worked through slowly and thoroughly.
Another really useful area Alex covers is post-processing. As he mentions in the book, it still seems as if post-processing is fairly recent, but Adobe Photoshop has been around for 25 years. This skill is as essential as the diving and photography to make the most of one’s images and it is very positive to see it so well presented.
This book gets five stars and I recommend it to anyone at all who takes a camera underwater.